Starlet -- A Beautifully Understated Character Study

                                   Sean Baker's unexpectedly good American indie movie, "Starlet" (2012) is described as “the unlikely friendship between 21-year-old Jane and 85-year-old Sadie.” But, this is not a tender relationship story. The reasons for that are best discovered gradually, as Baker clearly intends for us to. "Starlet" takes place in a part of Southern California known as the San Fernando Valley, more commonly "The Valley." Set in an sun-dried land, the film takes the old drama of two mismatched people looking for connection and makes it feel just new enough to keep us moving within the journey.  

                                   Starlet is the name of Jane's pet Chihuahua. In the first scene, we see Jane (Dree Hemingway)  and her roommate Melissa (Stella Maeve), smoking weed. Melissa's boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) seems to be obsessed with X-box games. Their occupation seems to be getting stoned and getting into fights. Jane is not happy about her bedroom and so seeks out yard sales for sprucing up her room. In one of the yard sales, she meets Sadie (Besedka Johnson), a cantankerous 85 year old woman. Jane picks up big thermos from her yard sale to use as a vase. 

                                  At home, Jane discovers several thousand dollars (nearly $10,000) hidden in the bottom. of thermos. She goes for a small shopping spree -- binges on a high-priced manicure for herself and a sparkly halter for her dog. But, soon, may be by an unarticulated sense of unease guilt, she returns to Sadie's house to give back the thermos. The hostile Sadie just says "No refunds" and shuts the door. She has no memory of that money. Still undecided, whether to return the money or not, Jane decides the best way to assuage her guilt is to force herself into Sadie’s life. At first, Sadie is suspicious of Jane's motives, but she is persistent enough in her attempts to assist the old woman that an unlikely friendship emerges.  

                                If the plot sounds like a fairy-tale, it's not. The hints to their back stories blends very well and makes Jane and Sadie grow ever more interesting as characters. Neither of them is fully veracious, which causes the occasional tiff. There is an absurdity to this relationship but director Baker smartly reins in. He has derived unforced performances from the two lead characters. Dree Hemingway lures us into the naive, girlish daze through which Jane sees the world. We see hardcore rap music, playing loud in her car. But, when we get to know about the nature of her job, it seems that she has numbed her emotions to the degree that she is oblivious to the lyrics of rap.

                                Bedeska Johnson, making her feature film debut at the age of 86, brings the right amount of aggression and obstinacy. Even if Baker's script didn't feel as natural as it does, we would still feel OK spending time with the two portraying their protagonists. Stella Maeve is also very good as Jane’s monumentally stupid, mean-spirited roommate. Baker's direction, at times, makes us feel like a eavesdropper. The conversations and the depiction of girls lives looks genuine. He doesn’t give much details about either woman, in terms of their histories, but as they inch closer to each other, the continuities between them gain resonance, power. The cinematography (by Radium Cheung) is often shot in shallow focus and tight frames, desaturating the image to look rosy and soft (doesn’t glamorize and blocks out everything Jane doesn’t want to see). 

                               "Starlet" is a rough ride, but this is the kind of film not often seen, one that is honest about the dishonesty in relationships. It instructs us that broken souls can help each other to become whole.


Starlet -- IMDb 

Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows" -- A Brief Analysis

                                     Louis Malle's forst project as a director was the Palme d'Or winning under water documentary "Le Monde du Silence." After this early success, Malle set about working on his first feature, and adaptation of crime novel by Noel Calef. An ingenious, deliciously Hitchcockian thriller, "Elevator to the Gallows" (Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud) was made in 1958 when its director was just 25 years old. In an 1975 interview, Malle was to remember: "We changed practically the whole story just keeping the basic plot -- the idea of a man trapped in an elevator for forty-eight hours over a weekend.

                                    Despite displaying considerable know-how on he documentary, Malle was an inexperienced movie director. In the lead female role, he case Jeanne Moreau, who had started acting in her late teens and had become a familiar face of the theatre. However, despite her theatrical success she had made to do with bit parts on the big screen, over a period of ten years, until her appearance in "Elevator to the Gallows." The presence of older actress on set would prove reassuring for the relatively unseasoned Malle throughout the shoot.

                                   The first minutes of Malle's first fictional feature film are executed with impressive flair -- the way the director cuts from the imminent assassination of a character to the deafening whir of a secretary's electric pencil sharpener. The story is about Julien Tavernier, a young Parisian businessman and an ex-Army officer. He conspires with his lover, Florence, to murder her husband (and his boss), who is an important arms-dealer. After much meticulous planning, Julien seems to commit the prefect murder, leaving Florence's husband dead in his office with his own gun in his hand. 

                                  However, as he is about drive away to meet Florence at a nearby cafe, he notices a piece of tell-tale evidence. Returning to the office, he becomes trapped in the lift. While he is stuck between floors, a local florist and her delinquent boyfriend, Louis steal his car and drive past the cafe where Florence is waiting. Florence sees the florist leaning out of the car's window, leading her to believe that Julien has backed out of the plan and taken off with a younger woman. 

                                 Meanwhile, Louis and his girlfriend end up in the company of a couple of German tourists. That night the young couple try to steal the German's posh car. When they are interrupted, Louis shoots the tourists dead (the gun is taken from the dashboard of Julien's car). This double murder leads to Julien being hunted by the police, who is trapped in a elevator.

                                "Elevator to the Gallows" emerges as an emotionally mature and classy thriller, its polished craftsmanship all the more impressive for being Malle's directorial debut. Al though parts of movie were shot in the studio, actual locations like the Champs Elysses were used effectively, notably in the scenes of Moreau searching for her lover through the streets of Paris. 

                                 For these tracking shots the camera was pushed along the road in a pram, pre-empting the guerrilla film-making tactics of Jean-Luc Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard in "Breathless" (1960). It's interesting to note quite how many New Wave films find their protagonists roaming aimlessly and desperately around the city like Florence. As a point of comparison, see Antoine Doinel's night in a printing factory in "400 Blows" and Pierre's deserted days in "Le Signe du Lion." 

                               With its extreme opening close-ups, young cast and jazzy score, "Elevator to the Gallows" may easily be compared to Godard's feature debut "Breathless." However, the New Wave director who is most brought to mind during Malle's movie is Francois Truffaut, who put Moreau's breathy, impassioned voice-over to similarly good use in "Jules and Jim." Godard, Truffaut and Malle all shared an interest in Hitchcock and in the thriller genre, especially the B-movie, and all three filmed adaptations of pulpy novels during their careers. Malle also whisked together different genres in the same manner as his contemporaries. 

                              There's enough material packed into "Elevator to the Gallows" to fill three or four feature films. Malle veers between the different stories with ease, juggling Julien, Florence and the teenagers' fates, intermittently leaving each in a precarious cliffhanger situation. He draws fine performances across the board, from Ronet and Moreau to the younger actors. Like Truffaut, Malle would display a knack for extracting engaging turns from young stars. 

                              This was also only the third film to be shot by Henri Decae, one of the key cinematographers of New Wave. As well as shooting on the streets of Paris in the evening, gloomy interiors were chosen such as the police interrogation room, the photographer's dark room and the lift itself, lit by the flame from Julien's cigarette lighter. Julien's gleaming knife, in these scenes, is just one of numerous shimmering surfaces in the film. This picture also makes imaginative use of other assorted light sources, including the night watchman's torch and car headlights. 

                            This unusual tale of a long journey to the end of the night has stood the test of time very well. The magnificent knotty, potty plot delivers some real surprises and deserves its awesome reputation. 

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'echafaud) -- IMDb 

Elevator to the Gallows -- Roger Ebert Review 

Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up" -- An Analysis

                                          In 1989, Kiarostami came across an article in the weekly magazine about the strange case of a man who had impersonated, with dubious motives, another director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and who had been unmasked before he could commit his (supposed) fraud. Kiarostami was literally fascinated by the case, and decided to investigate it as the possible subject for a film. After talking to Makhmalbaf, who agreed to work with Kiarostami on the project, both film-makers went to the prison to have a preliminary interview with the imposter; afterwards they went to see Ahankhah family, also to negotiate their participation in the film.

                                   In the light of their recent experiences, it is not surprising that the family now suspected a swindle by 'fake Kiarostami' and demanded to see both men's credentials before even allowing them into the house. While, the imposter, Hossein Sabzian, was for various reasons delighted with the idea of a film about the case, the Ahankhah family took much more convincing; their gullibility had been exposed and they did not relish the idea of the affair's becoming widely known. However, Kiarostami managed to persuade all parties and even succeeded in obtaining permission from the judicial authorities to film the trial.

                                     The well-disposed judge in charge of the case turned out to be a great cinema fan who particularly liked Makhmalbaf's films; he agreed to the proposal after consulting his superiors and even saw fit to delay the start of the hearing by a few days, so that all the relevant parties could be present to make the film crew's work easier. Kiarostami filmed the session using two 16mm cameras -- which obviously accounts for the different photographic quality of this sequences in the final cut -- without knowing whether the film would turn out to be a viable project.

                                   For weeks, Kiarostami improvised as he went along, slowly constructing the film, Close-Up, from that tremendous first day's shooting. "This is a film that made itself," the director later declared, "which came about completely naturally". Quite so. "Close-Up" (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990)  is undoubtedly a different proposition altogether from the rest of Kiarostami's films. It has no links or particular relationship with any other of his works, somewhat like a star, which in the midst of crowded constellation, shines with its own bright light. However, the film can be understood in its proper terms only by appreciating the deep-seated reasons for Kiarostami's fascination with the 'Sabzian case' and the close, thought difficult relationship that he came to establish with its protagonist.

                                     When Kiarostami met him in the prison in Tehran, Hossein Sabzian was an unemployed print worker, about 35, a member of the large Turkish-speaking minority in Iran, who had got divorced some years previously and maintained little contact with his very young son. A great film fan, he particularly admired the work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a director from a working class background like himself who during his career had become known for his unconditional support for the dispossessed, oppressed people. This explains why, when, owing to a chance meeting -- the encounter with Mrs. Ahankhah on a bus when she was reading the script of one of the director's most popular films, "The Cyclist" -- Sabzian started to pass himself off as Makhmalbaf.

                                   Sabzian had no kind of preconceived plan, and was not letting himself  be carried away by the conventional glamor of cinema as such, but by a kind of profound identification with the director. "Tell him that his last film is my own life" was the message he asked Kiarostami to relay to Makhmalbaf, as an expression of his admiration and a vague justification for his behavior. Once he felt at home in the character of Makhmalbaf, respected by each and every one of the Ahankhah's -- a comfortably well off family who nevertheless has their own problems at this difficult time -- Sabzian decided to continue the game, promising to shoot part of his next film, supposed entitled "The House of the Spider", with their co-operation and in their own home.  

                                   During Sabzian's relationship with the Ahankhah family, before his impersonation was discovered, he once borrowed 1900 toman from them to take a taxi and buy a small present for his son; this would constitute the main charge against him, as an unmistakable indication of his intention to swindle the trusting family. Sabzian never for a moment denied the facts themselves, but he did reject the interpretation they were given. He never questioned his guilt according to the law, but skilfully deflected the legal issue onto moral ground. Seemingly ashamed and repentant, he claimed that, although his behavior might have given grounds -- technically -- to suspect a fraud, he never had such an intention and he was guilty only of failing to repay the loan.

                                   Sabzian, was thus possessed, like so many other Kirasotami characters, by an overwhelming desire, the passion for cinema in his case, which led him to transgress against the rules of society. A compete film buff, it was Sabzian himself who moreover drew the specific comparison between himself and the protagonist of Kiarostami's "The Traveler" during the trial; "In a way, I am like the boy in the film, who pretends to take photographs to get the money he needs to go to Tehran and see the match. Then he falls asleep and misses it all, which is what I think has happened to me. From the legal point of view, I know that my behavior can't be justified, but I also think that my love for art should be taken into account." With this speech, Sabzian fully deserves the right to a prominent place in the 'hall of fame' of Kiarostami characters.

                                  "Close-Up" not only speaks to us of the human need for dreams and the cinema's enormous power of fascination; the film also introduces a damaged character, who pretends to be someone else in order to regain his own self-respect. Kiarostami is very clear on this point. Sabzian is a weak and pathetic character who tries to escape the frustrations of his life by making an unusual bid for integration into a society that excludes him. That is why his question to Kiarostami when the director visits him in prison is simply: "Could you make a film about my suffering?" That is also why it is completely incomprehensible to describe the film, unless from lack of knowledge or frivolity, as the 'comic tale of an imposter who just wants to be a film director.' Sabzian is above all a person who is suffering, to whom at a particular moment the cinema offers a temporary escape. 

                                 Kiarostami clearly gives the accused the benefit of the doubt, even though he was fully aware that Sabzian was a complicated individual, possibly twisted, not necessarily reliable. But the film persona of Sabzian is unmistakably that of a broken man, a victim who inspires sympathy and fellow feeling. The well-off family that Sabzian deceives is also using him -- the famous Makhmalbaf -- to try to solve some of their own problems and to escape from the tedium of their daily lives. The film gives us no information about Mr. Ahankhah (a colonel, retired from the service owing to the revolution), but it does about his sons; Mehrdad, the youngest, is an engineer who still has not managed to find work six months after graduating and who runs the risk of ending up, like his elder brother, working in a bread factory.  

                                Nobody in "Close-Up" seems satisfied with who they are or what they do. The problem, Kiarostami seems to be saying, is not only Sabzian's. His case works in the film as a genuine distorting mirror of the situation of Iran in 1990. The absence of exact references to times and dates means that the audiences must continually reorder the scenes that they are shown on the screen, change their perspectives and question their perceptions, in an uncomfortable but productive state of uncertainty. A perfect example of this is the film's first sequence, even before the credits, when the journalist, accompanied by two soldiers, takes the taxi to Ahankhahs' house to arrest the impostor Sabzian, about whom at this stage we know nothing. 

                                For some minutes we listen to the desultory conversation between the taxi-driver and journalist, interrupted only by brief appeals to the soldiers and short-halts to ask passers-by (in typical Kiarostami fashion) for directions to the address they are looking for. Once at the house, the audience, who has no more information than this, is left outside with the taxi-driver, watching him pick a flower out of a pile of leaves and kicking a spray can down the road...... for more than 30 seconds. The sequence is excellent and testifies to the rigorous investigation of form that, Kiarostami was undertaking in his films. Concerning this opening sequence, he explained in a interview: "I was constantly hunting for scenes in which there was 'nothing happening.' That nothingness i want to include in my film. Some places in a movie there should be nothing happening, like in Close-Up, where somebody kicks a can. I needed that "nothing" there."

                                 "Close-Up is not a film about cinema", Kiarostami staged categorically; "it is portrait of a man who is searching, erratically but desperately, for his place in the world. It is only because his passion, the object of his desire and his source of comfort is the cinema that the Close-Up is also about cinema."

                                 But "Close-Up" is not in any way inspired by a reflexive or self-referential intention; its discourse is rather that of solidarity and compassion. That is why Kiarostami, in the celebrated final sequence, rewards Sabzian with an unexpected gift: the real Makhmalbaf is waiting for him when he is released from prison, to take him on his motorbike to apologize to the Ahankhah family. Kiarostami has not only played a major part in his release and ensured that in a way he fulfills his promise to the Ahankhahs, to turn them into the protagonists of a film; he also gives him the chance to meet his idol, Makhmalbaf. 

                             "Close-Up" was given a poor reception in Iran; Kiarostami maintains that he can't remember reading a single good review after it was first screened. But, the future of "Close-Up" was decided abroad, basically in France, where it was given an early and warm welcome, which gave rise over time to its international reputation as a genuine cult film. The movie is a difficult one to classify. It seems to defy the usual critical categories, and forces us to think about the fictive transparency of the real. This film is undoubtedly one of the defining characteristics of Kiarostami's work.

Abbas Kiarostami discussing about "Close-Up"

Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik) -- IMDb

Days of Heaven -- Terrence Malick's Meditative Drama

                                "Days of Heaven" (1978) is the Terrence Malick film before his notorious 20-year hiatus. It was the introduction of Sam Shepard to movie-viewers and it is almost incontestably the most gorgeously photographed film ever made. Terrence Malick, a former philosophy instructor made his first film "Badlands" in 1973, which is an road-movie about wanderers and a meditation on the soul-scape of America. His second film, mulls over the migrant farm workers of the early 20th century, scattering from one place to the next, drifting with the seasons. 

                                 Reducing the film to its plot would be far too confining.  It mostly observes life as it happens and communicates the feeling of smallness, the people who set out to harvest America must have felt when confronted to the hugeness of the land. The film is set in the pre-industrial revolution of America, in the 1910s. Bill (Richard Gere) is an hot-headed young man, who loses his job shoveling coal in a Chicago steel factory after a brawl with the foreman.Along with his little sister  Linda (Linda Manz), and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams), he flees from the industrial blight of the city to the harsh, sanctuary of the Heartland.

                                 They work with many homeless immigrants, in the wheat fields of Texas. The land belongs to a wealthy, self made wheat man farmer (Sam Shepard). He lives alone in a huge mansion house and is slowly dying from some illness. When the rich farmer takes a fancy to Abby, Bill sees a way to break out from poverty. Bill has disguised his relationship with Abby as a brother-sister bond and urges her to marry him for the inheritance, failing to consider the complexities of bargaining with human emotions. The young girl, Linda, (unusually clear-eyed for her age) observes everything, her childhood growing thin and she  narrates the story, in a naive but cynical way. 

                                 "Days of Heaven" should be seen for Terrence Malick's vision and for the images, the cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler put before our eyes. Some of those are like the impressionist paintings. They are the most beautifully suggestive imagery to cross the screen: fields of wheat riffling in the wind; a diverse community of farm hands bathing in a river; laborers bent down hard at work under the glaring sun; a festive celebration at harvest time with a black man dancing his heart out on a plank of wood. The cinematography reaches a threshold point, when it covers the invasion of a plague of locusts.

                               Director Terrence Malick tells his story in small, obtuse movements, where even the dialogue is reduced to tiny fragments of a holistic whole.He attractively transcends the simple purposes of film. The simple storyline is amalgamated to suit his favorite themes. He contemplates the ever-present preoccupations about man’s frailty in the face of nature’s power and God’s indifference to man's petty concerns. In the end, we feel a haunting sense of waywardness, of the roaming millions who have toiled away on fields and in factories, fading into the past, unnoticed. 

                                Another inclusion to the film's impressive crew is the masterful composer Ennio Morricone, whose score sweeps out of the film, majestically evoking a dawn of change with pensive progression. Nothing is ever said in a straightforward manner in Malick's film. We have to feel it and, travel along its dreamlike path. His movies are masterpiece because of its sensory triumph and unsurpassed textural pleasure. Like all great movies,  ”Days of Heaven” is universal in its theme and story. The events in the film may occur in a specific time and place in American history, but the film carries strong mythic, allegorical, and even biblical meanings. It is open and ambiguous to allow for various readings by its viewers.

                                "Days of Heaven" is a landmark film and motion pictures equivalent to poetry. 


Days of Heaven -- IMDb

Promised Land -- A Well-Intentioned Drama with an Unconvincing Denouement

                                     Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land" (2012) incorporates the plot of two different kind of movies. At one side, it is a preachy anti-fracking drama and on the other side, it is one of the nuanced portrait of small-town America at the crossways of the past and future. While the first thing results to a sloppy ending, the other part shows some interesting dynamics at play here about how big corporations operate and the post-Industrial Era battle between environmental concerns and economic realities.   

                                  "Fracking"  is said to be the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside. Shale rocks is a sedimentary rock formed by the deposition of successive layers of clay. This is the controversial method of drawing out natural gas from the land. It's also one of the hot-issues today, full of arguments on both sides. And while rich corporates might have less skin in this game than a poor farmer who desperately needs the money for those drilling rights, at least the movie makes some attempts at fairness, at first.

                                   Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and Sue Thompson (Frances McDormand) are the top sales reps. for Global Gas Field Operatives. Steve, himself was a farm boy turned big-city professional. He holds an honest affection for the blue-collar work ethic and is painfully aware that he’s effectively emptying entire communities under the pretext of revitalizing them. The duo are sent to rural Pennsylvania to convince the locals to sell their land for the purposes of hydraulic fracturing in exchange for a huge pay. The initial reaction is positive in the community, but when a high school science teacher, Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook), speaks out against fracking during a community meeting, problems arises for Steve. 

                               Soon, a cheery and charming environmentalist Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) arrives and teaches locals that fracking is not only laying waste to a rich agricultural tradition, but also contributing to air/water pollution and killing livestock. He charges up the locals by posting photos of dead cows everywhere. Along with the campaign against Global, Dustin also wages a effusive war with Steve for the affections of a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt). The middle part of the movie follows the moves and counter-moves by Steve and Dustin to win over a majority of the community before an all-important vote. The vote determines whether fracking is a "go" or "no go." 

                                Scriptwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski  have something to say rather than a story to tell, and the agenda ends up defusing the drama. A viewer might have a question of why such an important acquisition is left in the hands of two low-level operatives. The question is answered in the screenplay (towards the end), which turns "Promised Land" into a dubious drama. Gus Van Sant directs the brewing drama with ease and assurance, establishing a rich sense of place through cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s mournful portrait of an economically depressed farming community. However, the thoughtful contemplation on corporate neglect and personal responsibility suddenly shifts into a one-sided statement that cheapens, rather than underscores. 

                             As Steve, Matt Damon gives a nice, low-key performance. He generates a tense screen resonance with Krasinski, ideally cast as a grassroots charmer. Frances McDormand is perfect as Sue -- a pragmatic woman who views what she's doing is "just a job" and whose only true concern is providing for her son's education. Hal Holbrook turns in a fantastic performance as an cantankerous corporate critic. The ensemble also has sharp character work by Titus Welliver (as the witty gun-shop owner Rob), Scoot McNairy and Tim Guinee (locals with varying opinions on the drilling issue). 

                               The question raised through "Promised Land" is this:  "Whether the undeniable economic benefits of fracking outweigh the potential ecological issues." But, the attempts in answering this question is too facile. Apart from that single misstep, "Promised Land" is made with good intentions and certainly takes us for a ride along the lovely and vital rural America. 


Promised Land -- IMDb

Hydraulic Fracturing -- Wikipedia

Francois Truffaut's "Shoot The Piano Player" -- A Brief Analysis

                                  After a year of the appearance of both "400 Blows" and "Breathless", Truffaut chose to adapt a short novel by American crime writer David Goodis. The film is Truffaut's unconventional take on crime genre titled "Shoot the Piano Player" (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). The original novel entitled "Down There" was, said to be, set in the seedier regions of the author's home town of Philadelphia. Truffaut, shortly after finishing his treatment for "Breathless" has read the novel and he quickly devoured everything Goodis has written. Elements of several of the author's other novels, therefore, found themselves drawn into the artistic patchwork of "Shoot the Piano Player."

                                  Like Godard, Truffaut chose to make "Shoot the Piano Player" partly to show his debt to American B-movies and pulp fiction. His second film was also a kind of reaction against his first. The director has been projected to great fame as the creator of "400 Blows", yet wasn't afraid to say that the acclaim of general public meant little to him. He decided that his next film wouldn't concern childhood and would be step away from sentimentality. It was a film for the film-buffs, full of in-jokes and allusions. Above all. it was a feature for himself and had a good deal of fun to make.

                                   The movie starts with Chico (Albert Remy) running frantically down an alley in an anonymous French town. It is dark. So dark in fact, that he runs straight into a lamp-post and is knocked down. He is helped to his feet by a passer-by and then continues to run until he finds a lively bar. Here he meets his brother (Charles Aznavour), the bar's laconic pianist, who he hasn't seen for years. His brother seems unthrilled to see him, especially as Chico explains that he is in trouble and needs help. Te pianist knows trouble like the back of his hand. A childhood prodigy and one-time concert pianist, he is haunted by the memories of his wife's suicide and now makes ends meet playing piano to an unappreciative audience of bums and drunkards.

                                 As two men enter the bar searching for his brother, the pianist aids his getaway. When he wakes up the following morning, and sees the two men outside his bedroom window, it becomes clear that he hasn't heard the last of the matter. Chico's misdemeanors have brought him into a dangerous situation in which both the pianist and the woman he grows to love will find themselves trapped.

                                Many of the noir touches remain in the film, such as the dark alleyways and lowlife locations, all memorably shot by "Breathless" cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Aznavour's pianist is a typical noir hero. Living in temporary accommodation and dogged by a tragic past, he doesn't give anything away ot let anyone in. Like Michel Poiccard ("Breathless") and Antoine Doinel ("400 Blows"), he is marginalized and misunderstood, an anti-hero.

                               As well as maintaining the dark and dramatic atmosphere of his source material, Truffaut plays with a number of different genres in the film, so that it becomes a mixture of the romance, comedy, melodrama and tragedy genres, as well as a crime picture. The movie has abundant comic touches. Some of the early scenes in Plyne's bar are especially humorous and there is gentle comedy in the sequence where Charlie alongside Lena and tries to hold her hand. Truffaut plays up the romance element of the story and softens the hard guys, who at one point have a discussion about musical lighters and other toys.

                           The film is famous for the comic scene, where one of the gangsters proclaims "May my mother drop dead if I tell a lie", to which Truffaut replies with a shot of an old woman collapsing. Such generic playfulness and swift changes of mood makes "Shoot The Piano Player" particularly hard to pin-down. The film was advertised as "plays in may keys --  all of them delightful, all of them different." Through using in these diverse keys, the film essentially subverts the original gangster genre in a similar manner to "Breathless."

                           "Shoot the Piano Player" was criminally overlooked upon its release. but remains as one of Truffaut's finest works. It's an irreverent and exhilarating work of the French New Wave era.


Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste) -- IMDb

Criterion Reflections

Still Walking -- The Ebb and Flow of Familial Love

                                    Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the rare Japanese or modern film-maker to beautifully capture the mysteries of life and the idiosyncrasies of insecure human beings trying to muddle through the messes and miseries of day-to-day life. His films, "Nobody Knows" and "After Life" are my personal favorites. His stories imbue with tactility and humanity. Kore-eda's seventh feature film "Still Walking" (2008) is every bit sensitive as "Nobody Knows" and the story about a dysfunctional family reunion becomes a cinematic poem through his directorial vision.

                                   "Still Walking" embodies a universality of experience, in which everything is understated and naturalistic. There is no melodrama and false emotions. The tone of the movie reminds us of the great Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. From the repeated shot of a train passing in the distance to the static, carefully composed shot, there are similarities to Ozu. In fact, Koreeda can be called as the heir to Ozu, where an ordinary family gathering, evokes emotions that involves the viewer rather than distancing him.  

                                    The film covers 24 hours in the Yokoyama family, whose first-born died rescuing a drowning boy. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the younger son, is returning home to spend a day with his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and his 10-year old step-son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Ryota is an art restorer and is jobless. He is is not close to his father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), and mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) and unwilling to let his mother and father know anything about the job. Ryota's difficulties with his parents date to a time when his elder brother Junpei died (15 years earlier). Since Junpei's death, Ryota has found living up to his dead brother's memory  to be an impossibility. 

                                    Patriarch Kyohei is a retired doctor and takes a peaceful walk every day around the port city of Yokosuka, while his wife Toshiko commands the kitchen. Their daughter Chinami (You), her car salesman husband (Kazuya Takahashi), and their two children have arrived before Ryota. She would like to move her family into the parents' house. Yukari, Ryota's wife, is the only voice of calm in this clan and it is at her insistence that they are not only going to show up for Junpei's memorial but also stay overnight.

                                   In the hushed stillness of regret, the film bristles with a sublime quality. From the close-ups of succulent, snapping, fried corn to the ending -- in which the members of the older generation express a desire to see their children more often, while the younger couple wishes the opposite -- the film evokes nostalgia of our family's better and worst moments. Director Koreeda's brings serenity about the gathering, though there are some ugly moments, notably a visit from the pathetic young man Junpei saved, who is judged with harshness by the old people. Kore-eda was inspired to make this film because the death of his parents. In an statement, he said, "As an ungrateful eldest son who used the demands of my profession to excuse my long absences from home, I find myself troubled by regrets, to this day. 'If only I'd been more . . .' 'Why did I say that then . . .' Still Walking is a movie launched by the experience of regret that we all share . . ."

                                    Kore-eda compositions are graceful and is observant of all small things. The script is like a best Chekhov story -- in capturing how family disputes is as much a matter of avoidance as head-on confrontation. Another poignant aspect of the direction is the treatment of death in the lives of this dysfunctional family. Even though he is dead, Junpei hovers over all of the interactions of the one day these people spend with each other in a long time. In the ending, Ryota simply explains the fate of his parents and the things they idly discussed doing "some day" where never done. Also, it's not all doom and gloom: Kore-eda celebrates the best of his mother by cooking up her favorite recipes and there is unexpected humor in the proceedings

                                     I think many people can relate to the emotions and ideas expressed in the final five minutes of "Still Walking." In this globalized world, the relationships between parents and their adult children are not so very different. But, only a film-maker like Kore-eda can illustrate that in an unforced way. 

                                    "Still Walking" is an appealing bittersweet drama and an cautionary tale  of not being too late to embrace loved ones. 


Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo) -- IMDb 

Beyond the Hills -- An Examination of the Broken Modern Society and Repressive Religion

                                    Romanian film-maker Christian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" (Dupa dealuri, 2012) is based on a true story. It was based on the story of a exorcism performed at a remote Orthodox monastery in the north east part of Romania. A ritual gone haywire -- Hollywood studios would have prepared the script in extremes of black and white. That's not case with this compassionate and wise dramatic adaptation by writer/director Mungiu (won the screenplay award at Cannes). This is not a horror movie with faithful priest and hate-spewing villain. It's simply told like an Ingmar Bergman film, where humankind is deeply flawed and God is indifferently silent and the landscape is cloaked in winter.

                                      The film begins with a railway station unification of childhood friends, now in their 20's: Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Alina cries and hugs Voichita, who were inseparable and shared a bed together at a Romanian orphanage. They’ve been apart since age 18. There are hints that their love was physical, but the bond is emotional and very deep — two girls clinging to each other in a brutal world. Alina has worked as a barmaid in Germany and Voichita has drastically changed her life to become a nun in an desolated, strictly observant convent.

                                     The monastery doesn't have electricity or central heat where women answer to the dictates of the Orthodox priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina has come to persuade Voichita to come with her to Germany, where they can both find jobs working on a ship. When Voichita refuses, she gets agitated and threatens suicide. The nuns bind Alina's wrists and take her to a hospital, where the shackles are replaced by a strong tranquilizer. She returns to monastery, after recuperating in the hospital but continues to persuade Voichita and violently bursts in front of  priest and nuns. When Alina keeps on acting in an irrational manner, there is  talk that she might be possessed by Satan. 

                                     Christian Mungiu, who has previously won Palme d'Or award for “4 Months, “3 Weeks and 2 Days,” has once again given us a  thematically harrowing and emotionally gripping film. He presents a piercing portrait of a community that has gone far away from central spiritual practices and chosen instead to invest in those which lead to greater human conflict, and pain. There are many shots in the movie, which looks like a masterful painting -- the candlelit dinner of nuns around the afflicted Alina and an image of them carrying her through the snow on a makeshift cross. An occasional usage of cellphone and vehicles passing the mountains reminds us that this is the modern world, or else the setting looks like the medieval period. 

                                    "Beyond the Hills" moves at a slow pace, but Mungiu and his excellent cast take the time to allow us to get to understand the monastery. We might have seen over-burdened movies addressing the complexities of sexual confusion, religious conflict, or the psychological wreckage. Here, Mungiu moves effortlessly through the intersection of love,God, loss and godlessness that we barely notice how much he's doing. Although the tale is of 'exorcism gone badly wrong', Mungiu takes a non-judgmental stance, where the main topic is not the existence of evil but the failure of goodness. 

                                    The film raises a lot of moral inquiries and valid existential questions about what it really means to be free and alive. It is said that (in the film) there are 464 sins an Orthodox Christian can commit. They have cataloged the sins, so one shouldn't come to confession unprepared. But, there must have been one sin, which that catalog might have left out. It is the sin of caring for fellow human being. We see a world whose changeless background dissonance is the sound of things falling apart, and whose general language is the slightly bored, completely defeated shrug. "Ah, well. What can I do?" This may have missed the list, but it is the worst sin of all. 

                                     With an running time of 150 minutes, this is not an easy film to watch, but "Beyond the Hills" is ultimately an engrossing work of realism, challenging our expectations.


Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) -- IMDb

Jean-Luc Godard's "Band of Outsiders" -- A Brief Analysis

                                     After 1963's "Contempt", Godard chose to film another irrelevant, pulpy crime thriller on the streets of Paris.  Nominally based on a novel called "Fool's Gold", "Bande a Part" (1964) was said to be shot on a tight schedule (less than four weeks). The film was also the first production of Godard and his frequent collaborator Karina's new company called "Anouchka."

                                     Alongside Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player", Godard's "Band of Outsiders" is considered to be highly unconventional takes on the crime genre. With 'criminals' as the lead character, both these movies has an interest more in digressions, incidental occurrences and gestures rather than the grand machinations of plot. Still, "Band of Outsiders" has a quintessential genre scenario (the big heist) and is brimful of crime iconography. 

                                   The film starts with two petty crooks -- Arthur and Franz -- cruising the streets of Paris. Before they have shared more than a few words, they spot Oldie, a young woman who Franz has grown close to over the previous two weeks. They drive on through the suburbs and reach the house where Oldie lives with her aunt Victoria. Her aunt's friend, Mr. Stolz, has apparently amassed quite a fortune in cash. Having cased the joint, the two crooks attend an English lesson back in town, where they meet up with Oldie. 

                                After class, Arthur and Franz quiz Odile about Stolz's money. She finds herself bullied into taking part in a heist at her aunt's house. The following morning, Arthur's suspicious uncle makes Arthur promise to undertake the heist without Franz or Odile. Arthur placates them, but then swiftly brings the date for the job forward and tells the others it must happen that night. 

                            Franz, played by Sami Frey, has the angular face of a criminal and is also dressed for the part, with his cocked hat, double-breasted over-sized jacket and raincoat. He leaves a film noir shadow wherever he goes. Like Breathless's Michel Poiccard (lead character), Franz is playing the role of the gangster, informed from his love for American thrillers. 

                          Similarly, Godard's direction has been influenced by the film noir style. As well as the chiaroscuro lighting effects and edgy close-ups of characters' faces (including, at one point, even the face on Stolz's hidden banknotes), much of the framing comes straight out of American B-movies. A notable example is the recurrent shot of Franz and Arthur, as seen from behind, in their car. 

                               There are many parallels to the other New Wave films. Truffaut's "Jules and Jim" and Godard's own "A Woman is a Woman" are evoked by the central love triangle. "Band of Outsiders" also shares "A Woman is a Woman's" sense of play, particularly in the musical sequence. Several quirky comic touches, such as the antics of the liquor-swigging older student in the English class and the central trio's sprint around the Louvre.

                            Godard gleefully speeds up sequences in "Band of Outsiders" and much of the humor relies on physical comedy, such as Franz and Arthur's exaggerated bad-guy swagger and stylized shoot-out scenes. The film is famous for the stylish set piece in which the three leads share a dance routine in a cafe. Godard stops the music intermittently to give us insight into what the characters are thinking during the scene. The dance scene influenced Uma Thurman and John Travolta's boogie in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." The characters in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" race through the Louvre and beat the record set by Odile, Franz and Arthur.

                                 There are lot of In-jokes in the film too: After five minutes the narrator (Godard himself) offers a "clue for latecomers" and sums up the plot so far. Towards the film's close he tells us, "My story ends here like a dime novel." Aunt Victoria's comment to Odile ("I hope you go to class and not to the movies") is surely a reference to Godard's student days.

                               There's so much to savor in this fresh, funny and effortless likable film, not least the strong performances of the leads, especially the ever-impressive Karina. The title sequence itself is a work of art. Ultimately, Godard's "Band of Outsiders" is cool, witty and utterly irresistible.

Band of Outsiders -- IMDb

Princess Mononoke -- An Allegorical Anime Classic

                                  For years, Disney, Pixar and most recently Dream Works have dominated the world market for feature-length animation, bringing forth many unforgettable classics. Apart from giving us profound entertainment, they have also made us oblivious to the existence of an animated product beyond that of Hollywood and its competitors' clones. But, there is a force out there (in Asia), whose stories mixes the gentle soul of a poet to the vigorous plots of Tolkien. He is "Japanese National Treasure" (Roger Ebert called him like that), Mr. Hayao Miyazaki. His Studio Ghibli is an cohesive unit which has produced epic fantasies, historical romances, intimate character studies, broad comedies, and it has enjoyed immense domestic success. 

                                   Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" (1997) was one of the most successful box-office hit. It is a mythological tale set in the medieval Japan. The narrative is deeply committed to the integration of Japanese history, ideology, mythology, ecology and faith into an epic fantasy. This movie is a classic quest allegory about a prince named Ashitaka. 

                                   Prince Ashitaka is wounded or cursed in a battle (to save his town) with a worm-infested boar god. His village Oracle asks him to travel to the west, to plead the forest's spirit, in order to have the curse lifted.With Yakul -- an antelope like steed -- Ashitaka departs  to discover what set off the boar-god, which is crawling with hosts of flapping scarlet worms. He goes through the beautiful virgin forest and soon finds out what's annoying off the magical forces of the forest: The Tatara Clan. The clan is reached the industrial age, lead by an steely Lady Ebloshi. 

                                   She has built the Iron town with the group of country men, imperial guards, ex-whores and lepers. The town looks modern and is facilitated with the help of extraction and transformation of the land's huge iron supply. To build the town, they have cut down numerous trees which results to a war with the Boar Gods and other Gods of the Mountains. The town is also constantly under siege from samurais. Eboshi's most challenging rivals are San aka "Princess Mononoke", the Wolf God, Moro and her two sons. San was raised by the wolves and is determined to stop the humans from destroying the forest. From here, the story gets a little complex, with San and Ashitaka caught between warring humans and forest creatures, heading towards a disaster for everyone involved.  

                                     Miyazaki's style is so different from the mundane Hollywood plots and there's such attention to detail that it's easy to lose oneself in the animation. In brief, Miyazaki's movies have a texture that is absent even from some of the most technically adept CG animated motion pictures. Over the years, Hollywood has recognized Miyazaki, for the talent he is. Disney and Miramax has bought American distribution rights to all of his films. Princess Mononoke was the first Studio Ghibli movie to have a theatrical run in America and later, he got an Oscar for his work in "Spirited Away" (2001).

                                     Miyazaki, who also wrote the film, raises all sorts of questions while remaining viscerally accessible to all kinds of audiences. In "Mononoke", he uses animation neither for cutesy entertainment nor for sexploitative cyber-junk. The animation, here, is mature, complex, gripping and looks like the only possible way to fit Miyazaki's vision. Drawn by hand, but no landscape has been this indelible and dimensionally alive. The plot might appeal mostly to the adults. Although  there is no overt sexuality, the violence is reasonably graphic(decapitations and hacked limbs) and a child couldn't easily follow up the events unfolding in the screen. Even young and matured audiences will most likely miss the plot's many subtleties.  

                                    The narrative is closely welded to the multi-fold spiritual / ecological questions about the future. It portrays the ferocity and the beauty of the animal realm, the vitality of frontier communities, and the challenges faced by peacemakers who seek harmony in a world divided by conflict. "Princess Mononoke" may seem a bit long (135 minutes) but it opens a vast world of romance, fantasy, and excitement that is unlike anything to emerge from a Hollywood studio.     


Princess Mononoke -- IMDb 

Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" -- An Analysis

                                      Hitchcock, after "The Paradine Case" (1947) was fed up with kowtowing to the demands of producers and annoyed with being loaned out as a director-for-hire. He decided to go it alone, to form a company with his old friend Sidney Bernstein and produce his own films. Hitchcock knew that the only way he could make the films he wanted to make, with the minimum of interference from outsiders, was to produce. From 1948's "Rope", Hitch produced every film he ever worked on.

                                      "Rope" starts with Philip and Brandon strangling David with a rope as an experiment. They put him on a chest and prepares for a party they have arranged. Brandon arranges for the food to be served on the chest, like some ceremonial altar. The guests arrive: David's father and his sister, David's girlfriend Janet and David's best friend Kenneth. Finally Rupert Cadell, who taught all four boys, and now a publisher of intellectual books, arrives -- he is the only man Brandon looks up to.

Opening Scene

                                     Everybody is concerned about the whereabouts of David. Brandon tries to reunite Janet and Kenneth, who were former lovers. The conversation turns to disaster (it turns out that Philip is very proficient at strangling chickens), and Rupert explains that some people are superior to others and have the privilege to kill inferiors if they so wish. He says it in a light-hearted way but with conviction.

                                   Then things start going wrong: Janet and Kenneth argue with Brandon and virtually accuse him of kidnapping David; Rupert notices Philip's agitation and begins interrogating him. At the end of the party, Rupert puts on the wrong hat -- it is David's hat. Brandon and Philip think they have got away with murder and prepare to dispose of David's body, but Rupert returns to find out the truth. A fight ensues over a gun, Rupert wins, fires three shots out of the window and waits for the police to come.

                                   In the movie, James Stewart's Rupert seems more like an intellectual without emotional experience who realists his position is wrong when he responds emotionally to David's death. To a certain extent, Rupert is to blame because he put these ideas into Brandon's head and encouraged him, although the act itself was carried out by Philip egged on by the dominant Brandon.

                                  The whole film is done in ten-minute takes (the maximum amount of film held in a film camera) and transitions from one take to the other are covered by the people walking into shot filling the screen. This gives us the impression that we are seeing what is happening in real time. This is the legend. However, there is said to be one definite cut, when Brandon talks about Philip strangling chickens, Philip shouts and then we cut directly to Rupert's face.

                                 The repeated ideas in "Rope" by Hitchcock are the cultured villain (two this time); Hats; Neon (colored lights make red, green and blue hues on the characters as emotions come to the boil). In "Rope," Hitchcock is not concerned with the characters and their moral dilemmas. Here the concern is on the way the characters look, sound and move, and with the overall spectacle of how a perfect crime goes wrong.

                                  The film was based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, which was based on the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, the story of two homosexual law students in Chicago who murdered a 14 year old boy for kicks to prove they were super intelligent and could get away with it. Though the movie was made back in the days when any suggestion of homosexuality was supposedly taboo, Hitchcock's "Rope" is immediately explicit in characterization,  without actually committing any offenses the Production Code people could object to. The Climax is fitting, that Hitchcock's theme of death end in a pistol's climatic ejaculation out the window, a moment of necessary exposure, leaving the three principal characters alone with their sobering revelations under the camera's inescapable gaze, feels paradoxically liberating.

                                 With a running time of 80 minutes, "Rope"  is a fascinating experiment that still remains as a provocative entertainment.

Rope -- IMDb